To Be an Athlete

It’s dark outside and I laugh at myself as small balls of ice hit my face. Perhaps it’s just cold rain falling quickly from the clouds that circle above me, but either way, it is slightly painful. How many hours have I spent inside, on my trainer sweating profusely in a grand attempt to prepare myself for the heat in Morocco? Countless.  As I dream of home and the indoor heat, a formidable wind pushes my mountain bike and I across the road. Grateful that there isn’t any oncoming traffic, my mind is no longer back home in Colorado. I’m in the present, in Morocco. Pushing against the wind and rain, up an extremely steep hill, I repeat to myself that I am strong and capable as I give my all in the Atlas Mountain Race.

Ashley Carelock at the start of the Atlas Mountain Race. Photo: Ashley Carelock
Ashley’s Rodeo Pony before the race. Photo: Ashley Carelock

This edition of the race is 1,171 kilometers and I am only about 160 kilometers in when the storm begins to flood, what was only hours before, a dry, desert land. The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are stunningly beautiful. The juxtaposition of fertile valleys and arid hillsides are awe inspiring. Large pine trees and ancient hardwoods cover the valleys while the mountain sides and peaks remain in a dry, Mars-like state. 

It’s around midnight on the first night when I come across four other racers. They are all standing at a river bed, debating whether to cross or to wait until the water decreases. I still have energy in my tank, but since it’s past midnight and it feels like a waste of time to wait for the water to slow, I quickly pull out my bivvy and get a few hours of shut eye. Only four hours later, I awake and cross a muddy river bed. It’s as if the swift, dangerous water never existed and I feel like nature has played a trick on me. I tell myself that I am strong and capable as I push my bike, the Show Pony, though the next several miles of wet, sticky mud.

And that’s enough of the typical race report because quite honestly, this race wasn’t typical for me. I’ve struggled writing about this one for a few reasons. To begin, I was starving for the second half of the race. I have a gluten allergy and found my nutritional nemesis in almost everything, even potato and corn chips. As I look back, I realize I should have researched my food choices more thoroughly. Unfortunately I know that even with the research, lack of proper nutrition, especially those much needed carbohydrates, are difficult to find in the remote regions of Morocco for someone like me.

Moroccan landscape. Photo: Stephen Fitzgerald

When you push your body for at least eighteen to twenty hours per day for multiple days, you need enormous amounts of calories, and the search for calories slowly began to dominate my race experience. A memory of Atlas Mountain Race that will stay with me forever is the crippling nausea I experienced accompanied by dizziness and a weird taste in my mouth. There were moments that I had to stop and lie down, even when pedaling down a steep hill! On one such instance I laugh at myself as I lay down next to the road, gripping a dark chocolate bar, wishing it tasted sweeter, wishing it would soothe my nausea. I laugh at myself because even then my desire to win the race and push on is strong. I guess when you love a sport as much as I love this one, you still find joy in the darkest moments.

My reason for delaying this write up, for debating to even write at all, was an incident that occurred on my last few hours of the race. Before I tell this whole story, I want one thing to be clear. I would not hesitate in returning to Morocco. I would not hesitate in racing the Atlas Mountain Race again. The truth is, I fell in love with the country, its landscape and its kind people. Throughout the majority of the race, I was treated with respect. I would even go as far to say that I was cared for by the Moroccan people. I was a foreigner, a stranger in their homeland and many of them went above and beyond to care for me.

One instance that cannot be passed over was my experience in a small little village restaurant. I arrive late at night in need of a new phone cable. Mine had stopped working, and even though I could continue the race without a working cell phone, I am not a fan of the prospect. One of the patrons at the restaurant goes out of his way to find me a solution to my problem. Forever my Moroccan MacGyver, after over an hour of investigation, he splices together my old phone cord with one of his. I still have the cord, and it will still charge my phone today. I don’t know if I will ever be able to throw it away. Afterwards, the group of five or so men allow me to sleep a few hours inside the restaurant. They give me a pillow, blanket, sleeping pad and, despite having a home to go to, they stay to watch over me. I believe they are staying open for other racers behind me. It wasn’t until later that I realize they stayed open for me alone.

Contrasts in Morocco. Photo: Stephen Fitzgerald

I think that my lack of proper nutrition is the most difficult part of my race as I ride through sandy sections of the last hundred or so kilometers. The sun is rising and I pass a man who is most likely walking to work. I hit a deep sand filled rut and quickly fall hard onto my right side. The pain is instantaneous. I sit for a minute as I assess my body. I’ve broken multiple ribs in the past and I know the pain well. I’ve just cracked another. I take a few deep breaths (at least I can do that), get back on my bike and keep moving. I am less than seventy kilometers away from the finish line and I will not quit now. It’s been over ten hours since my last drop of food. At this point I just can’t stomach anything. I am now covered in sand, riding strong to the finish with a look of desperation in my eyes.

A man on a motorcycle rides up beside me. His English is poor, but I can tell he’s offering to put myself and my bike on the back of his motorcycle. I naturally decline and try and tell him that I’m fine. He does not leave. Minutes later he is still with me. I’m starting to get very annoyed and anxious about him as he points and directs me to the bottom of my bike. The strap that I’ve used to hold a large Nalgene bottle is flapping. I figure he’s just trying to be nice and perhaps he will go about his way if I stop and fix it. I stop, and so does he. I reach down to fix the strap and my rib quickly reminds me of it’s broken state. I struggle with the movement. The man reaches down and fixes it for me. I’m thinking of how kind he is as he grabs me into a hug. My rib reminds me once again of it’s existence but the feeling dissipates and all I am left with is the thought, and overwhelming feeling, that this stranger does not want to let me go. In his arms, I cannot reach my Spot tracker to push the help button. I cannot grab my cell phone. He starts to kiss my cheek and I get angry. Despite the pain and with any strength I have remaining in my body, I push him away. As if I were talking to a naughty dog, I wag my finger at him and forcefully scream NO! He looks shocked and throws his hands up as if he was saying “my bad.” He gets on his motorcycle and drives away as I stand there, shaking with pain and anger.

It is this anger that carries me to the finish line. I am the first woman to finish, besting the previous woman’s record by several hours.

I keep asking myself why I do this. Why do I put so much of myself, my time and money into the sport of ultra cycling? The answer is simple. It’s because I love it. I am grateful that I CAN be an ultra cyclist. But, I know my experience in this sport will always be different than my fellow male competitors. I hate admitting it, but as a woman I, and my other female colleagues, have a different perspective and experience when we race alone. There will always be an understanding and sometimes fear of potential situations like I experienced. But should this fear keep female athletes from the sport? My answer is a resounding no.

Morocco. Photo: Stephen Fitzgerald

What does it mean to be an athlete? When people inevitably ask me, they always ask about the technical aspect, the training, the nutrition, and so on. As an athlete, especially a female athlete, I believe it means so much more than this. I love to push my mind and body to its limits. As an athlete I am not defined by my gender. I am simply a human being who is inspired by and who wants to inspire others with feats of endurance, courage, determination and strength.

Every time I race an ultra event I grow as a person and athlete. And, despite this last incident of assault, one that I believe is isolated, my faith in humanity is always renewed. My journey, as a female athlete, is one of strength, capability and beauty.

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3 responses to “To Be an Athlete”

  1. geez i was cringing to hear you describe that abuse situation with the motorcycle driver, so sorry to hear that
    most importantly you’re killing it on your bike and telling the stories!!

  2. Beautiful story of strong will, determination, and what it means to be an athlete, thatk you for sharing, safe travels in your next event.

  3. I tell people I push myself……..because I can. I will never win an event, but I will finish most of what I start. Your story is inspiring.

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